A lot of songs involve some degree of storytelling, but the chronological, twisting ones are what stick as the greats. These songs are fascinating to listen to not only because of their musical quality, but because of how lyricism almost becomes a synonym for plotting. No here bragging or preaching, just some artists who’d make Hans Christian Andersen proud.
1. “Nina Ross” – MURS
MURS has never fit the traditional hip-hop mold, and usually addresses the genre as if he were on the outside looking in. Whether or not it’s actually a long metaphor for misogyny or not, “Nina Ross” sends a clear message about rappers and groupies. A light, airy song, combined with the twists in the storytelling, makes this a must in MURS’ catalogue.
2. “Paul Revere” – Beastie Boys
This song that describes how the Beastie Boys first met seems more like fan fiction. I mean, it opens with AdRock riding on a horse (named Paul Revere) while being held at gunpoint by MCA who just wants some beer. But this perfectly fits the early Beastie Boys people loved. It’s goofy and upbeat, which is what you’d expect when it takes place in a neo-western world where Mike D is robbing saloons.
3. “I Hung My Head” – Johnny Cash
Originally performed by Sting, “I Hung My Head” was a good story wrapped in a song that was significantly more peppy than its content. In comes Johnny Cash, who pretty much did the country version of chopping and screwing. Playing a more sullen, pensive version made it seem like Cash was always the song’s creator, continuing his streak of his covers outshining the originals like Nine Inch Nails and “Hurt.” A story of a man practicing his shooting skills gone wrong, “I Hung My Head” deserved Johnny Cash’s rendition. Sorry, Sting.
4. “Carolina Drama” – The Raconteurs
With all sorts of twists and open-endings, “Carolina Drama” is both frustrating and fascinating. Jack White weaves a story about a southern family with some serious issues. Altering between subdued and grungy, the instrumentation works perfect the gritty song. What really makes the song memorable is the finale, which is both haunting and beautiful (“the white milk dripped down with the blood”). And that final line, oh that final line. What does it even mean!?!
5. “Stan” – Eminem (feat. Dido)
A very unexpected duo, Eminem and Dido delivered this incredible song that dealt with the weight of fans on celebrities. The song is a bit of a legend in terms of Eminem’s career, launching a term for the generic Shady fan (Stan) and connecting him with Elton John after Eminem was accused of homophobia. Incredibly dark and unforgiving, “Stan” is essentially unlistenable in its edited form, practically losing an entire verse due to censorship. It’s also deeply moving, with Dido’s chorus being a relief amongst the bleakness.
6. “Dance with the Devil” – Immortal Technique
Woah. Hopefully you weren’t in a good mood today if you tried listening to these past two songs. “Dance with the Devil” is pitch black dark. There is no redemption in this song’s story, no good feelings, and certainly no happy endings. The visceral reaction many have to this song is merely a testament to how well-woven this story is. Whenever the piano comes in, familiar listeners already feel that sense of despair. Graphic and disturbing, this song makes “Stan” almost look like a Disney original.
7. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” – The Charlie Daniels Band
Alright, something not nearly as dark. A classic song that even country-haters can appreciate, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is essentially the perfect song-story. The spoken-word quality of the song makes it an easy sing along, and the legend of Johnny versus the Devil is a nice tale. Unlike the last two entries, this Charlie Daniels Band classic is harmless fun, and one of those songs ideal for playing in a packed car.
8. “Tribute” – Tenacious D
Whether it’s a tribute to the greatest song in the world or a tribute to “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” doesn’t make much of a difference. The song that introduced the world to Tenacious D does exactly what its source material did, but with more laughter and more a capella. And infinitely more Jack Black. “Tribute” follows the exact story of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” but replaces the fiddle with an electric guitar, substituting country for rock.
9. “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head” – Gorillaz
Acting legend, Dennis Hopper, everybody. An eerie story matched with Hopper’s voice make this a great song about a village of people fearful of an ominous mountain. Damon Albarn’s somber, dry chorus beautifully compliments the creepier parts, punctuating each of Hopper’s verses for a bit of mood relief. The simplicity behind the music itself really accents Hopper’s storytelling, and though it fringes on an actual song, “Fire Coming Out of The Monkey’s Head” definitely belongs here.
10. “Lola” – The Kinks
Based on real-life events involving The Kinks’ band manager Robert Wace and his encounter with a transvestite, this song’s story can get overlooked because it’s just so damn catchy. The Kinks must have had a really fun time making the song at the expense of their manager, and it really shows in its quality. Each verse heightens the visuals of the song, with the character based on Wace seeming meek, especially when in the arms of a not-so-subtle transvestite. “Lola” is up their with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” for sing-along quality and “classic” status.
11. “Levi Johnston Blues” – Ben Folds & Nick Hornby
I covered “Levi Johnston’s Blues” in a political Music Monday a little over a month ago, but it’s such a rowdy, fun song that it warrants inclusion in multiple lists. Like “Lola,” the story here is a real one, but in this case about someone who had an unfortunately large spotlight. As Bristol Palin’s baby daddy, Levi Johnston was thrust in a situation where he had little control, and Ben Fold’s rock ballad is a sort of tribute to the man. Its chorus is fantastic, and almost serves as an anthem for the redneck community. A harmless, tongue-in-cheek anthem that is. So maybe not as American/kick-ass as Toby Keith.
12. “Why Don’t You Get a Job?” – The Offspring
Ok, so it’s a pretty short story here, it doesn’t really have plotting, and the moral is obvious, but “Why Don’t You Get a Job?” is such a great song. Never before could you make a steel drum fit so well into rock. The song tells two short stories: one of someone working hard to buy their girlfriend things, and a guy who is too lazy and makes his girlfriend do all the work so he can do nothing. Maybe it’s singer Dexter Holland’s way of reaching out to his friends, or maybe it’s a little motivation for anonymous listeners, but the chorus’ catchiness/anthem quality in the same vein as “Lola” or “Levi Johnston’s Blues.”